Too often, political discussions and media coverage portray rural Ireland in simplistic terms.
This is an unhelpful approach that rarely gets to the heart of the issues involved. In reality, rural areas are as diverse and complex as cities.
My constituency of Cork South West has the rugged Mizen and Beara peninsulas, all manner and sizes of farms, and the towns of Clonakilty and Kinsale, which are rightly held up as models for other communities to emulate.
Rural Ireland is presented as conservative — but the results of recent referendums on social issues paint a different picture. County areas are also incubators of innovation, as evident from the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen and the frequent Young Scientist successes from West Cork areas.
To achieve regional development and support rural communities, we need three key interventions: equal access to public services, decentralisation of decision-making, and a just transition.
Regardless of where you live, you should have reasonable access to healthcare, education, and other services, not to mention affordable housing, proper childcare, and broadband. This requires the Government to move beyond an austerity mindset and instead focus on a rights-based approach.
For example, the provision of disability services is a postcode lottery, with some families having to travel hours to get basic therapeutic support for their children, or many people with disabilities under 65 living in nursing homes because there is not enough supported accommodation available. A rights-based approach that guarantees basic services is the only way to right these wrongs.
These are incredibly important issues for rural communities. The potential downgrading of Bantry Hospital in West Cork is a major concern because it is over an hour’s ambulance drive to Cork University Hospital. While this is a terrifying prospect for locals, it seems to just be a budgetary decision for the HSE and Government.
Ireland needs balance. Centres of excellence are absolutely necessary, but we equally need well-resourced primary care centres in all towns, and fully functional regional hospitals.
Secondly, too much decision-making in Ireland is centred in Dublin and the cities. We need to empower communities to work with experts and public officials to make the best decisions for an area. Too often, plans and projects are imposed on communities, in rural and urban areas alike.
Flooding is a clear example. After years of pleas for assistance, the OPW engages in tokenistic consultations rather than harnessing local knowledge. Residents and business owners understand where the problems are in their area, and often have very simple, but effective, solutions. Engineers and planners should be proactively working directly with local groups.
The Town and Village Renewal Scheme is a good, but under-resourced, approach. It allows villages and towns to work with local authorities to apply for practical funding to help develop their town, such as the purchase of stage and amplification equipment for community events and concerts in West Cork or the revamp of Macroom town centre.
The only issue with the scheme is that it is not funded enough. Nonetheless, it presents a model for local funding which is based on local knowledge and priorities. This is the type of public policy that works; it is value for money and helps empower communities, business associations, and voluntary groups.
Finally, we need a just transition. Rural areas are feeling the impact of climate change. Storms, floods, and droughts in recent years can be devastating to agriculture. The only way we can succeed in the face of climate change is if the action we take helps these communities. To find out how we do this, we need to ask those communities.
The Government narrative for too long has suggested that climate action will negatively affect rural areas and negatively reshape Irish agriculture. The result is the very communities that will be the most severely impacted by climate change are the ones that are most scared of climate action.
Most farmers want to be more sustainable; they understand and value the land. However, too often, policies which represent vested interests and big players promote practices that harm biodiversity and damage the environment for future generations.
Government departments and local authorities have to engage with communities more to develop viable solutions.
Too often policies are punitive rather than empowering. Public policy has to be based on sustainability that can future-proof our rural areas and encourage practices that enhance our natural environment. All schemes should emphasise sustainable development and job creation.
The vision of a thriving and sustainable rural Ireland, with good jobs and strong services, will not be achieved by the same old policies. That vision requires fresh thinking, and a new narrative. We need to move away from tired clichés which pit ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ against one another, and instead recognise that we will all benefit from policies that boost investment in the local economy, build strong public services, and deliver a just transition.
For me, this is the essence of social democracy. It might also be called common sense.